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Philadelphia History Museum died a slow death from a thousand cuts

The closure and ownership transfer of the former Atwater Kent Museum collection to Drexel has been a long time coming, the result of multiple failures.

A tiny replica of Elfreth's Alley at the storage facility for the Philadelphia History Museum.
A tiny replica of Elfreth's Alley at the storage facility for the Philadelphia History Museum.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

The richness of its collection belied the poverty of its circumstance.

The Philadelphia History Museum, once home to everything from George Washington’s presidential desk to Abe Lincoln’s felt fedora and shackles worn by John Brown, has been given away in its entirety by a city unwilling to pay for its upkeep, even in storage.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Orphans Court approved the transfer of ownership of this heterogeneous collection, deemed “priceless” by historians and collectors, to Drexel University, which is keeping it in storage for the moment, just like the city did.

Interviews with more than a dozen historians and museum professionals suggest that the Philadelphia History Museum ended up in a couple of giant locked rooms far from the heart of the city because it was too diffuse, its vast collection too randomly accumulated, its many narratives unexplored, and its funding sparse and never assured.

If the collection’s new owners solve those problems, you can talk about a museum with more than a fighting chance.

Drexel officials say that the first tranche of hundreds of collection images will go online by the end of May. The collection itself will be moved eventually into new storage space at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Over 100,000 artworks and artifacts were held by the museum, the City Charter-mandated repository of Philadelphia’s own history. Each modest letter and photograph in its collection, each rifle and musical instrument and garden utensil squirreled away told a story — 100,000 stories resting in storage in northwest Philadelphia, waiting to be mined and brought into the open.

But the Philadelphia History Museum in its 86-year history failed to explore many of the stories, beyond noting the presence of desk and hat and offering them up for view. What did they tell a visitor about Philadelphia?

Visitation dwindled to less than 20,000 in 2017; the next year, the museum closed. It was a long time coming. Visitors stopped going not because history is uninteresting or uninviting, various professionals said. But because it was awkwardly presented and poorly told. The demise of the Atwater Kent says nothing about what it is possible for the city to do; rather it speaks to the city’s inability, and ultimately, the unwillingness to tackle the difficult.

Incoherent icons

“People emphasize these iconic items, which are interesting, but they’re actually incoherent,” said Randall Miller, an emeritus professor of American history at St. Joseph’s University. “They’re not part of any particular focus, except they happen to be in Philadelphia, the desk or the hat. But they don’t tell a story that is a Philadelphia story. They don’t tell a story that’s going to draw people into the phenomenon of Philadelphia, except that it’s a place where some stuff happened over time.”

Steven Conn, a professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, who hails from Philadelphia, said that museums need “an intellectual rationale that creates an audience and a constituency” for success.

“And I think the Atwater Kent was never quite able to do that,” he said. “It couldn’t figure out what it was. And therefore it couldn’t figure out who its audience was and, therefore, even how to cater to that audience.”

The demise of the Atwater Kent, as the Philadelphia History Museum was known colloquially, has been slow and painful for a city that has sought to brand itself as synonymous with American history, the heartbeat of the heritage industry in tourism lingo. But reliant on the city for money, administration, housing — everything — the Atwater Kent ultimately rolled over and sank.

To historian Miller and Gary Steuer, who arrived in the city in 2008 to head culture programs for the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter, the museum was never more than the city’s “poor stepchild.” To Michael Barsanti, head of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Ellen Dunlap, head of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., the Atwater Kent struggled to rise above the status of an afterthought for successive mayoral administrations.

Arguably the death was in the birthing.

Doomed from the start?

In a 1938 ordinance, City Council agreed to accept the neoclassical building on South Seventh Street, first home of the Franklin Institute and donated to the city by radio manufacturer A. Atwater Kent, as the city museum. The city was directed by the ordinance to maintain and run the museum.

Kent, who made a fortune on radios, actually saved the John Haviland-designed Franklin Institute from demolition at the hands of developers. The City Council ordinance accepted the building and stipulated it be known as the Atwater Kent Museum. Should it cease being a museum, Atwater Kent would have the option of demanding return of the building.

There was no collection that came with the building; that came from many things given to the city and from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Even more significantly, no funds were allocated by Council to fund collection care or exhibitions, although the city agreed to provide some funding “from time to time.”

Former Mayor Ed Rendell, faced with the threat of an existential budget crisis, decided the city could afford to eliminate the museum’s $247,000 subsidy from the city books. That was in 1992. The Betsy Ross House and the Philadelphia Museum of Art also were also on the budget chopping block.

“The problem with the Atwater Kent was there was no money to fund it,” Rendell said in a recent interview. “They had no independent ability to raise money, and it became almost like a ghost town. It never seemed to me it was a museum that could put any oomph behind their mission. They were more custodians than promoters.”

Private funders and donors were not helpful.

“There weren’t enough people at the philanthropic level, who really wanted to pick the thing up and say, ‘This is going to be my project. This is going to be my contribution,’ ” said Barsanti.

Historian Miller said that the presence of the city had a major, sometimes contradictory impact on funding. Private donors often shied away from giving to an institution already supported by the city. But then, when the city withheld its support, that raised eyebrows and discouraged donations as well.

“Once Rendell said that these things don’t count, they didn’t count,” Miller said of Rendell’s cuts. “Rendell’s interest became, you know, the Avenue of the Arts and these sorts of things.” The Atwater Kent, Miller said, “was always small, always a sideshow.”

The Atwater Kent survived the Rendell cuts. But in ensuing years, it was beset by a thousand more.

In 2007, the then-museum director began selling off valuable parts of the collection to raise money for renovation.

Established museum standards, laid out in the ethical guidelines of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors and other professional organizations, generally argue that revenue from collection sales should be used only for strengthening a collection, not for operations or general capital projects. The Atwater Kent violated this cardinal rule, igniting considerable controversy.

But the director disagreed, claiming the sales did not violate these standards . . After all, the new museum HVAC system was essential for “care of the collection.”

David Young, executive director of the Delaware Historical Society who once worked as head of education at the Atwater Kent, said the institutional failures were multiple, involving board failures, leadership failures, failures of the imagination.

“It could never effectively collaborate with [Independence Park], and then it’s bedeviled by deferred maintenance.” Such costly problems “forced” the museum’s hand, which led “to bad decisions like artifacts on the market. And that’s a harm on a collecting institution’s reputation for a generation at least,” Young said.

‘A cascading failure’

The museum’s location was another complicated asset they could never quite manage. On the one hand, South Seventh Street seemed a plum site in the heart of the city’s densest tourist neighborhood. On the other, what did the Atwater Kent have to do with the American Revolution — the event that drew most people to the area?

“Nobody in the historic area, other than the history museum, is telling that more diverse story of Philadelphia, which is a great story — workshop to the world, industrial history, the sports history, the history of immigration, the birthplace of the A.M.E. church, you know, Mother Bethel, — incredibly powerful, diverse story,” said Steuer, the Nutter administration cultural officer who now heads the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation in Denver. “And I don’t think anybody ever kind of grasped that. But the Atwater Kent reflected something far beyond the [Revolution] story that is the core narrative of the city.”

The location, so close to the Liberty Bell and its millions of annual visitors, seemed to mesmerize museum officials. They became fixated on fitting the museum into the narrative of the neighborhood, rather than presenting narratives of their own.

“I think that its location, which was so close to Independence Park, but so far — they could never get people to come,” said Barsanti. “Nobody wanted to see it.”

Philadelphia’s cultural landscape is littered with one fallen historical institution after another, but the focus on history itself does not appear to be the root of the Atwater Kent’s difficulties. Hardly all museums, even history museums, are in trouble. Consider the Museum of the American Revolution, just across Independence Mall from the Atwater Kent — a history museum with a tight narrative, decent finances, and lots of visitors. Is it the exception that proves the rule?

Ellen Dunlap, who once directed the Rosenbach Museum and Library, which is now a unit of the Free Library of Philadelphia, believes there are simply too many small history organizations in the region. Hundreds of house museums, libraries, archives, historical societies; the region can’t support them all.

That particular problem is illustrated by the Atwater Kent’s past. The Balch Institute was absorbed into the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which has been having its own difficulties over the last several years. Now the Atwater Kent, the repository of the historical society’s collection of artworks and artifacts, including a cache from the Balch in a deal made 15 years ago, has folded up shop.

“It’s one failure on top of another,” said Morris Vogel, former head of the Tenement Museum in New York City and one-time dean of Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts. “This is a cascading failure.”

“I think collections are important, but they’re not the be all and end all of a museum,” Vogel said. “If you have a vision about what the institution should achieve, you can develop a strategy around that much more readily then you can develop a strategy around the collection.”

For preserving the institution, he said, “you have to have a purpose beyond being a storage facility, which was the Atwater Kent specialty for a long time. That’s really not gonna get you there.”

“I think of there’s a richness that is there to be exploited in Philadelphia. Contrast that with the Tenement Museum in New York, which when you think of it, is just an old building that was falling down.”

Yet that old, falling-down building now greets about 275,000 visitors a year to hear the story of American immigration. A focused narrative embedded in the neighborhood mythology.

Carolyn T. Adams, former Temple college dean, said she had “a pretty simpleminded and straightforward view of this.”

“My strong view here is that museums these days need to tell a story to the visitor,” said Adams. “They need to tell a consistent story so that the objects that people are looking at reinforce that compelling story. And I don’t think the Atwater Kent succeeded in that.”